Report Calls for Closing Mississippi River Channel that Costs U.S. Taxpayers Tens of Millions of Dollars Annually, Was Major Cause of Katrina Damage

National and Louisiana environmental experts released a new report on December 5th calling for closing the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), a little-used shipping canal that costs U.S. taxpayers tens of million of dollars a year to maintain, has destroyed large parts of Louisiana's coastline and contributed to the devastating storm damage in New Orleans. The report, Mister Go Must Go: A Guide for the Army Corps' Congressionally-Directed Closure of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet [PDF], was released during a 1pm news briefing at the Rayburn House Office Building (Room 2325). MRGO is an artificial channel that the Corps of Engineers built in 1965 as a shipping shortcut from the Gulf of Mexico to the New Orleans inner harbor. MRGO was supposed to bring more business to New Orleans, but it has been a huge economic disappointment.

"Closing the deadly MRGO and fixing the damage it caused is a win-win situation for both American taxpayers and Gulf Coast residents," said Paul Harrison, Coastal Louisiana Project Manager at Environmental Defense. "MRGO remains an enormous physical danger for New Orleans, has degraded its environment, and cost the American taxpayer as much as $45 million each year to maintain, yet it is used by fewer than 10 ships a day."

The report comes 10 days before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' legal deadline of Dec. 15 to present Congress with a plan for closing the channel to oceangoing ships, and possibly to all water traffic. However, putting the plan into effect and expanding it to include restoration of the surrounding area would require further congressional action.

The new report relies on scientific modeling by Louisiana State University and the University of New Orleans to show what the Army Corps of Engineers must do to reverse the damage and restore the natural landscape that used to protect New Orleans from storm surge (see full text of Mister Go Must Go [PDF]). The report includes the following seven recommendations:

  1. Deauthorize MRGO as a federal navigation channel and cease maintenance dredging
  2. Restoration of the Ridge at Bayou la Loutre
    Channel Severance or Constriction at Other Locations

  3. Restoration/Maintenance of the Narrow Land Between Lake Borgne and the MRGO
  4. Expand Riverine Influence
  5. Restoration/Rehabilitation of Bank Lines Along the MRGO
  6. Natural Infill of the Channel
  7. In addition to Environmental Defense, the report is endorsed by the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, National Wildlife Federation, Gulf Restoration Network, Louisiana Wildlife Federation, American Rivers, and St. Bernard Parish President Henry "Junior" Rodriguez.

"The MRGO has been a nightmare for St. Bernard since it was dredged," said Rodriguez. "We've been trying to close it for 30 years. It's got to be closed now for St. Bernard to survive."

"This report leaves no doubt that MRGO needs to be shut down so that the natural conditions that used to protect New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish from storm surge can be restored," said Carlton Dufrechou, Executive Director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. "We've found some viable ways to accomplish those goals."

"We are asking Congress to oversee the Corps' continuing planning and make sure an effective, sensible and environmentally sound plan is presented to them," said Mark Ford, Executive Director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.

Louisianans have been calling for closure of MRGO, commonly called "Mister Go," for decades, but the issue received national and congressional attention after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Mister Go Must Go painstakingly details the damage MRGO has done, including how it exposed New Orleans and surrounding communities to hurricane storm surge that breached levees.

"The Corps of Engineers' plan to close and fix MRGO was designed by Congress to be an integral part of the Corp's Category Five protection study," said Cyn Sarthou, Executive Director of the Gulf Restoration Network. "The study will foreshadow whether the Corps is going to make the right choices for protecting all of coastal Louisiana."

"Closing MRGO and restoring the natural ridges and wetlands that used to protect New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish is a litmus test of whether the Army Corps and Congress are serious about protecting the New Orleans area from hurricanes," said Melissa Samet, Senior Director for Water Resources at American Rivers.

The Corps of Engineers created the MRGO by slicing through the natural land bridge and barrier islands that separated New Orleans from the Gulf. It allowed millions of gallons of saltwater to flow into the area's freshwater bayous and lakes, killing tens of thousands of acres of cypress forest and wetlands that had served as a natural hurricane barrier. The design of MRGO also allowed it to act like a funnel, accelerating the rate at which hurricane-churned wind and water headed toward the New Orleans area. The loss of natural hurricane barriers and the increased storm surge from the MRGO "funnel" allowed Hurricane Katrina to slam into the coast at full force, putting unprecedented strain on manmade levees, many of which failed.

"MRGO destroyed wetlands that protected levees from the huge waves created by hurricanes, so Congress did the right thing when it directed the Army Corps of Engineers to plan closure of the channel and restoration of those wetlands," said Susan Kaderka, Director of the Gulf States Natural Resource Center at the National Wildlife Federation.

"We must view this in light of the larger problem," said Randy Lanctot, Executive Director of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation. "Louisiana's wetlands provided protection, but 2,000 square miles have already disappeared and we lose another 10 to 20 square miles each year even when there aren't major hurricanes."

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